SPENCER MICHELS: This dramatic painting, "The Falling Angel," by Marc Chagall, is one of several on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that have never before been displayed in America. The painting is one of 150 works that make up the first major Chagall retrospective since 1985, the year he died. Although Chagall is known mostly for his portrayal of life's joys, "The Falling Angel" is regarded as his personal response to the suffering of Europe and the Jews during World War II: The red angel falling alarmingly to earth. This retrospective shows the range of emotion over Chagall's lifetime. Janet Bishop is curator at the museum.
JANET BISHOP: This exhibition gives us an opportunity to consider how he fit or didn't fit with the major avant-garde movements of the 20th century, and to consider what made Chagall distinct.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chagall began painting very young, independent of the various movements like impressionism and later cubism that were shaking up the art world. As is made clear in the exhibit, much of his inspiration stemmed from his Hasidic Jewish upbringing in Vitebsk, the town in Russia where he was born in 1887, and pictured here in a film available at the museum. He was the eldest of nine children in a poor family. From the beginning, his works were relatively easy to understand, putting them out of the avant-garde mainstream, according to Jean-Michel foray of the Chagall Museum in Nice. He organized this exhibit, which was first shown in Paris.
JEAN-MICHEL FORAY, Chagall Exhibit Organizer: (Translated): Chagall makes an aesthetic choice that his paintings are carriers of meaning. And unlike the abstract painter, it's important for him that that he asks people who see his paintings to understand what it is he's trying to convey.
SPENCER MICHELS: After three years in Paris when he was in his early 20s, Chagall returned to Russia before the revolution to marry Bella Rosenfeld, a girl from his hometown who became the subject of many of his most famous and fantastical works. Their granddaughter, also named Bella-- Bella Meyer-- came to the exhibit opening.
BELLA MEYER, Art Historian: Unfortunately I never knew my grandmother, because she died very prematurely. But I always heard about her through grandfather, and loved for him to tell us about her. And he always talked about her in the most adoring ways. He was truly happy. He was in love, and she appears everywhere. When I did actually fall in love, he said, I think, "now you understand what love is; now you will understand my paintings."
SPENCER MICHELS: In Moscow, Chagall designed sets and decoration for the Jewish Chamber Theater, including this huge canvass done in 1920.
JANET BISHOP: The role of music and dance was very important to him culturally. He shows a very joyful scene that's connected to God, in a sense. You see Chagall on the left hand side of the painting in a brown suit. Chagall is holding a palette, which is something that one sees in many of the canvasses throughout the exhibition.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chagall returned to France in the 1920s, and became friends with avant-garde artists. But he didn't join their ranks. While other painters were experimenting with abstraction, cubism, and other styles, Chagall mostly stuck to his own distinctive, yet simple techniques and subject matter. It took him nine years to complete "Midsummer Night's Dream." "Lovers in the Red Sky" portrays a woman and her lover flying over an eastern European Jewish town. Although Chagall was not regarded as a full-fledged surrealist, "Time is a River Without Banks" is regarded as among his most surrealistic works. And with "Temptation: Adam and Eve," he borrows from the cubists.
JANET BISHOP: He didn't reject cubism. He borrowed some of the formal principles of cubism, but then he didn't behave himself. He used biblical imagery, which was... which was very unusual. He mixed up sort of cubist fracturing of space with very realistic depictions of things, like leaves and apples.
SPENCER MICHELS: The retrospective shows Chagall striking out on his own artistic path. And that put him at odds with some critics then and now. His work, they argued, was too sentimental, too accessible, too much like folk art. Sabina Ott, a painter who heads the graduate program at the San Francisco Art Institute, has mixed feelings about Chagall's art.
SABINA OTT, San Francisco Art Institute: On the one hand I really I really enjoy... I mean he is an amazing renderer. His touch is fantastic, and the colors are fabulous.
SPENCER MICHELS: What about on the other hand?
SABINA OTT: There's not a lot of things to really grab onto that keep your intellect searching about the subject matter. I say this with, like, a big grain of salt. I think he was really a happy man and the work is really joyful and pleasant. And I think it's always hard for an artist to make work that's about love and sex and fidelity and marriage and joy without tipping in to the sentimental.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chagall's granddaughter says criticism disturbed him, to a point.
BELLA MEYER: He was extremely insecure. He would ask us grandchildren also all the time, "Do You Love Chagall?" So in a way this criticism probably scared him a little bit because he so much wanted to be understood. He can't really do anything if people want more and pretentious things.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the commercial art galleries of San Francisco, gallery owners along Geary Street are capitalizing on the nearby museum exhibit, and on the artist's reputation.
This is a lithograph. It comes from the most important body of painting he'd ever done.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rowland Weinstein's gallery devotes three full floors mostly to signed Chagall lithographs at prices ranging from $9,000 to $125,000. The work, he says, sells.
Maybe in today's world, especially with everything going on, maybe that's what we need, is beauty and love and joy. And then I think it's... he wears his heart on his sleeve. He lays it all right out there, and people get it. They see exactly what he means by it, and they respond exactly to what he means by it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Bella Meyer says the meaning of her grandfather's paintings stems from his own spirituality.
BELLA MEYER: He is truly religious. He is truly spiritual. He would say, "when I paint, I pray." And the bible was for him the most important poem, he said.
SPENCER MICHELS: But it wasn't just the Old Testament, as one might expect. One of the most striking features of the exhibit are Chagall's crucifixion scenes, unusual for a Jewish artist. Curator Janet Bishop says he used Christ as a symbol for human suffering.
This painting was made in 1938 and is no doubt related to the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe at that time. What you see in the painting is Christ on the cross, surrounded by images of war and destruction. And we see the advance of an army on the left-hand side of the painting; a town in flames underneath that; up in the right-hand corner a synagogue burns, and all around the composition are images of people in anguish.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chagall fled the war in Europe, and lived in New York. Shortly after his wife, Bella, died, he moved to the French Riviera, where he continued to create art until he died at the age of 98. The Chagall exhibit remains in San Francisco until November 4. It will not be shown anywhere else.